Saturday, July 28, 2012

Thoughts on Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp

The prize bestowed on Dragon’s Ark notwithstanding, it’s been a bumpy ride for me for a while, the latest pothole being an attack of acute bronchitis (though it hardly seems cute to me) that often has me curled up in bed like Gregor Samsa in a hot skillet.

Nevertheless, the Editorial We must find a way to struggle on through miasma, typos and all, even if it’s only to offer my thoughts on a notable book I’ve recently read.

That book would be Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp, a Berkeley Emeritus in the Classics.

How I came to read this book is a little more convoluted than my energy reserves can handle right now, but I will say that I often think that if my life had been kinked slightly in one direction or another, I’d be a Ph.D history professor at some distinguished university—via Oxbridge of course—and writing excellent books like this one, books that open complicated history to a larger and curious audience and shine lights on areas that should be better known.

In this passionate, clear, and incisively written book, Professor Knapp sets out to show just how limited, and often distorted, our view of Ancient Rome is. I think he succeeds.

Nearly all our notions, all our imagery, all our sense of Ancient Rome come from an extremely narrow perspective, based on a limited number of surviving manuscripts, nearly all of which were written by members of the Roman elite—the wealthy, the powerful, the upper class.

(One exception: Aesop’s Fables do seem to have been written by a slave.  Other major shadows and hints emerge from numerous epitaphs and books such as Interpretation of Dreams and the Carmen Astrologicum; novels such as Petronius’s Satyricon and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass and the New Testament, especially the Four Gospels. The evidence is rarely direct, but when all these sources are drawn together and compared, much can be inferred.

As for the people below, well, they were just about as invisible as a people could be. It’s this obscurity that Knapp overcomes successfully, considering how little there is to help fill in the gaps. Those in the middle and the huge number of people are only glimpsed, often through a distorted lens, then dismissed.

But they are unmistakably there, providing the understructure of the society that dominated them, often cruelly and arbitrarily.

This is not story-telling history, but analytical history. Professor Knapp orders his book into sections, each of which portrays a different stratum, starting with the mass of ordinary men and ordinary women. Separate chapters deal with the poor, slaves, freedman, soldiers, prostitutes, gladiators, and bandits and pirates (who formed societies separate from the empire).

There’s not much “dash and action” here, but for anyone writing such books, fiction and non-, this is a readable and invaluable resource.

Not surprisingly, the Roman Empire was an extremely reactionary-conservative society, from top to bottom, from Senator to slave, from Praetorian to peasant.

Many slaves wanted to escape and many many tried to--most notably Spartacus—but all of them accepted the system as it was. (Many slaves even did well within it, after a fashion, sometimes achieving status as “freedmen.”) Aesop never spoke of injustice and revolution. For the ordinary men and women, neither history nor future existed. Nor did romantic love

Earthly power came down from the upper classes, from the Roma elite and—especially—the military, whose crumbling into tyrannical decadence seems to have been a major factor in Rome’s downfall. Whatever it happened, it was the way the gods and fate had set things.

Notions of free will seem to have barely registered. It wasn’t until the appearance of Christianity that signs of a new consciousness arose (a struggle that continues despite efforts to reverse, deny, and obscure it).

It's important to understand just how people's outlook differed from ours, two thousand years later. If you made it to your thirties in ancient times, you were old. (The age given of many of the epitaphs are very low.) The list of things that could kill you was long. Death lurked everywhere. Everyone from rich to poor lived in some kind of peril.

From our point of view, hopping the Wayback Machine would be a discouraging experience for all but the most militantly myopic (and even they might well run into trouble, as militants often do.) Women lived in what we would call apartheid, were all but absolutely separated from men and lived limited lives in a few set roles, but within those roles, many found a certain flexibility and prosperity. Somehow some people managed to be happy.

All fresh facts and insight aside, this is a pleasurable book to read. Professor Knapp is a clear, engaging writer, both passionate and astute. If you’re interested—or just think you’re interested (especially fans of the HBO series Rome), this one comes with high recommendation.

Now back to bed.

(reedited 7/29/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Julie Schauer said...

As long as Knapp has written for the general public and not solely for other historians, it sounds like an important book to read to get a fuller picture of ancient life As for women, I generally thought they give more freedom than Greek women. I'm so behind on my reading. Maybe some day. Thanks for the recommendation.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks, Julie! That's been somewhat my understanding, too, re the role of women, nevertheless the rules seem to have been *strictly* enforced. Also, marriage was hard on women; there seemed to be little guarantee of security and no romance; girl children were abandoned and the wives could be sold into prostitution. They were able to participate somewhat in the economy, but they were completely shut out of the legal and political system.